Question: "Is hell literally a place of fire and brimstone?"
Answer: By raining down fire and brimstone upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, God not only demonstrated how He felt about overt sin, but He also launched an enduring metaphor. After the events of Genesis 19:24, the mere mention of fire, brimstone, Sodom or Gomorrah instantly transports a reader into the context of God’s judgment. Such an emotionally potent symbol, however, has trouble escaping its own gravity. This fiery image can impede, rather than advance, its purpose. A symbol should show a similarity between two dissimilar entities. Fire and brimstone describes some of what hell is like—but not all of what hell is.
The word the Bible uses to describe a burning hell—Gehenna—comes from an actual burning place, the valley of Gehenna adjacent to Jerusalem on the south. Gehenna is an English transliteration of the Greek form of an Aramaic word, which is derived from the Hebrew phrase “the Valley of (the son[s] of) Hinnom.” In one of their greatest apostasies, the Jews (especially under kings Ahaz and Manasseh) passed their children through the fires in sacrifice to the god Molech in that very valley (2 Kings 16:3; 2 Chronicles 33:6; Jeremiah 32:35). Eventually, the Jews considered that location to be ritually unclean (2 Kings 23:10), and they defiled it all the more by casting the bodies of criminals into its smoldering heaps. In Jesus’ time this was a place of constant fire, but more so, it was a refuse heap, the last stop for all items judged by men to be worthless. When Jesus spoke of Gehenna hell, He was speaking of the city dump of all eternity. Yes, fire was part of it, but the purposeful casting away—the separation and loss—was all of it.
In Mark 9:43 Jesus used another powerful image to illustrate the seriousness of hell. “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.” For most readers, this image does escape its own gravity—in spite of the goriness! Few believe that Jesus wants us literally to cut off our own hand. He would rather that we do whatever is necessary to avoid going to hell, and that is the purpose of such language—to polarize, to set up an either/or dynamic, to compare. Since the first part of the passage uses imagery, the second part does also, and therefore should not be understood as an encyclopedic description of hell.
In addition to fire, the New Testament describes hell as a bottomless pit (abyss) (Revelation 20:3), a lake (Revelation 20:14), darkness (Matthew 25:30), death (Revelation 2:11), destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:9), everlasting torment (Revelation 20:10), a place of wailing and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25:30), and a place of gradated punishment (Matthew 11:20-24; Luke 12:47-48; Revelation 20:12-13). The very variety of hell’s descriptors argues against applying a literal interpretation of any particular one. For instance, hell’s literal fire could emit no light, since hell would be literally dark. Its fire could not consume its literal fuel (persons!) since their torment is non-ending. Additionally, the gradation of punishments within hell also confounds literalness. Does hell’s fire burn Hitler more fiercely than an honest pagan? Does he fall more rapidly in the abyss than another? Is it darker for Hitler? Does he wail and gnash more loudly or more continually than the other? The variety and symbolic nature of descriptors do not lessen hell, however—just the opposite, in fact. Their combined effect describes a hell that is worse than death, darker than darkness, and deeper than any abyss. Hell is a place with more wailing and gnashing of teeth than any single descriptor could ever portray. Its symbolic descriptors bring us to a place beyond the limits of our language—to a place far worse than we could ever imagine.